Professional Wrestling. It’s an art form that’s been forced to adapt over time. The New Era is no exception. Women are praised. Wrestlers work their way to stardom. Kevin Owens is our Universal Champion, much to the dismay of ‘The Powers That Be’.
To continue to appeal to a contemporary audience, a facet of realism becomes core to the function of professional wrestling. Every match is a must-see when these incredible athletes give everything to stand out from the crowd. But it comes at a cost.
There’s great merit in the words of The Miz on Talking Smack last month. Miz has been with the WWE since 2006, and it’s generally been smooth sailing on the injury front. Compare this with Daniel Bryan’s last tenure of five years – having achieved a substantial part more than the Miz, but at a long-term price – and you have to wonder, how much further can wrestling go?
Seth Rollins has been hailed by officials as one of the greatest new talents of our time. The first NXT Champion, the man to be both WWE and United States Champion at the same time, he’s gathered a hell of a load of accolades in his near four years on the main roster. But Rollins hasn’t escaped criticism, being called “too reckless” by Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, after a string of injuries have haunted his WWE career.
Bret Hart reacted to the trend latching onto Rollins: “…if you’re a professional wrestler and you keep hurting opponents and/or yourself, clearly you’re doing it wrong. I wrestled a very realistic and physical style and not once in 23 years did I ever hurt one opponent, ever.”
Wrestling today, is a different beast. It’s grown and changed in unimaginable ways, defining the varied aesthetic consumers look for in a modern product. Every match has you on the edge of your seat, offering something awe-inspiring and different. The Cruiserweight Classic has been the perfect example of this, where every bout is a fight to the death for a shot at glory. Today’s viewers seek a sense of reality – they lust for stories of regular people with pockets full of talent and a drive to be the best.
This realism comes hand-in-hand with a crushing reality that performers can only do so much, culminating in a permanent state of unwavering energy and anxiety. Is it realistic to expect such intense performances to pile on? On top of this, they are compelled to exceed physical capacity and risk injury, for as much as a nod. There is a stigma attached to New Era wrestlers that they are invincible, thanks to the power of the human spirit. Though this simply isn’t the case.
Could it be an effort to make wrestling a socially acceptable form of viewing entertainment, by legitimising the struggle of professional wrestlers? Brock’s TKO win against Randy Orton at SummerSlam comes to mind, as a reckless excuse of drawing a sense of believability, and catching the eye of mainstream audiences. If this is what we need to draw in such people, it hardly seems worthwhile.
An effort to make a match appear genuine is contrasted with outlandish acrobatic feats. Go back to the Ricochet vs Will Ospreay match at Best of the Super Juniors in May. In addition to the appeal of Strong Style in Japan that attracts audiences seeking an authentic fight, there’s an immense interest in agility on adrenaline.
The major objective has changed. The difference now is that fans know that what they are seeing is a “hand-in-hand struggle primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment.”
The lines are constantly blurred as wrestlers work both real and fake injuries into stories, which has never been a more important means of suspending disbelief than it is now.
Performers have had to lift the bar. The necessity to survive absorbed the concept of wrestling, digested it and it exploded in a whirlwind of variety and colour that would paint the present and the future of the business. Yet it’s mindless dystopian entertainment in the eyes of some more than ever.
Eventually, these performers will plateau in their abilities to deliver jaw-dropping athletic acts. We forget that what they do is very physical, and takes a toll on their bodies and health. As with the popularisation of hardcore wrestling in the 90’s; death-defying leaps of faith and masks of blood became the norm. Fans became desensitised to inexorable violence, and careers and lives were cut short as a consequence.
Furthermore, does the push to survive do more harm than good? We, as fans, are engulfed in a plethora of wrestling styles and products. But as performers feel the heat to stand out from the crowd, putting their bodies on the line, is it worth our own selfish indulgence? When wrestling becomes a question of “What are they going to do next?” rather than “How will this story end?” are expectations unattainable for all?
Even legends like Flair and Steamboat were at one time, criticised for ‘over-playing’ their matches. The same was said of the Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask, who were innovators of the cruiserweight style in Japan.
Evolution, plain and simple, is a force that cannot be stopped. But with steady change, wrestling can better develop different avenues of refined styles and establish a proper cadence, that could help counter-act the dangers present in high-risk maneuvers and stunts.
Projecting wrestling as a legitimate sporting contest could be taken one of two ways. It’s either a dismal attempt to gratify it amongst its sporting peers, or a movement towards a modern context that resonates with its audiences, and justifies its place in the hearts of those who love it for what it is.
After the Ricochet/Ospreay match, William Regal took to Twitter following the match: “…Every country I worked in before I came to the US had different styles and ways of doing things. As long as there’s effort then it’s right. If the people paying you are happy and you get reactions, then make your stuff as good as it can be with what skills you have. May not be for everyone, but that’s okay.”
As Rollins says on Chris Jericho’s podcast, it all comes down to “creating a connection with the audience”. The wrestling world today is like a circus; people come to see the trampoline acts leap to immense heights, the big men lifting incomprehensible weights, and the contortionists baffle the imaginations of their audience. Every performer has their forte, and all styles eventually hybridise and clash. But before anything, there is a desire to entertain us, and for that it deserves respect.